Other Dimensions: Much Ado About Metric

December 1, 2006
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Quality Magazine’s publisher, Tom Williams, brought up the subject of metrication in the September issue-he wondered why the United States was not metric yet. This column is about dimensions of all kinds so I couldn’t let Tom’s questions remain unanswered. As Quality’s unofficial troublemaker, I offer the following.

There are many reasons why the United States has not gone metric, the most important being that the government has not dictated that it should, as was the case in Canada. While the legal measures are metric, it’s the everyday marketplace that hasn’t wildly adopted it. At least the U.S.

government-so far-knows that messing with a free market can have fatal consequences. It nearly did in Canada in one case.

Early in the transition, a commercial jetliner was refueled in Montreal before continuing on to Vancouver, but a mix-up was made in the measurement. The result was the plane ran out of fuel and had to land at an abandoned air base at Gimli, Manitoba. It became known as the Gimli glider because that’s how the pilot brought it down safely. But there were a lot of bewildered folks using the site as a racetrack who wondered what was happening, as well as those who wondered why the fuel ran out.

Metric enthusiasts will point out the many old systems that are out there that didn’t link up with each other in an orderly, logical progression favored by those of engineering persuasions. Measuring fence lengths in “chains” being one of them, but a practical one where a few links here or there didn’t make a difference. The inch or should I say, imperial system, had many such gems like this such as fathoms for measuring depth of water bodies-all quite simple and easy to work with.

Some years ago when the government of Canada dictated that the country had to go metric I sat on one of the committees. My purpose was to ensure the purists didn’t go off the deep end. I failed. Fractions had to be abandoned along with the inches so we ended up with a 500-millimeter bottle of one thing or another-a mouthful-compared to 1/2 liter used in Europe where it all started. Most of the bottles and packaging in Canada today are still imperial sizes with metric numbers. Or they’ve been rounded down to a nice metric number-but they didn’t do the same thing with the price.

Maybe lack of public interest in the United States is because of the intuitive belief that metrication made it easier for offshore sourcing from low-cost metric countries. Now that’s just a rumor so don’t go spreading it around. I think the real reason is that most folks couldn’t care less. Will my VCR be easier to program because it’s made to metric dimensions? I doubt it.

I don’t think my publisher should concern himself about the metric system. It’s all relative. Let the market decide. Any company that’s losing business because they aren’t metric will soon learn why and change to metric if it is in their best interest.

I was in Chicago recently and had dinner at my hotel. On picking up my fork I noticed it was big enough to spear fish or pitch hay. Maybe it was made to metric dimensions, but they forgot that centimeters were larger than millimeters. I didn’t stab myself, but I had to pay attention to what I was doing. The bill also had a size problem.

When you think about it, the average person rarely uses the inch system. Many folks buy the family size box of corn flakes and pay no attention to the weight. And don’t forget the other truly universal units of measure we all use such as party size or travel size. Before the price of gas took off, we didn’t buy gallons so much as we bought a tank full. I’ll leave the other practical measuring units such as mouthful, handful and whole bunch full for another day.

Personally, I don’t care one way or the other which system prevails. We must deal with reality. Whether it’s inches or millimeters, yards or meters, fishermen and golfers will continue to lie about them anyway.

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